Author: Nancy Nicklow and Jerry Nicklow
You don't have to be the first mover or the biggest adopter of technology, but you do need to stay relevant and not fall behind the curve.
We make sure we are keeping up by treating tech as another employee. We allocate to tech as if it were part of our mandatory payroll. We need to in order to stay relevant and ahead of the curve. But staying ahead of the curve doesn't mean buying every shiny item in the shop. We don't try to be radical with tech adoption, but we're not going to be last either.
If we look at a technology and can see that there's going to be a good return on investment, we go for it, but before we do, we always ask what the break-even point is.
At Huff, our technology choices also dovetail with our internal workflow changes.
We're in a dynamic business. As technology changes, we have to respond. There are many angles to pursue when it comes to what the tech evolution offers. Those include improvements to the customer experience, additions to product offerings and staff education.
Before we roll out any new technology, a small team tests it and figures out how the workflow or other processes have to change; then, we introduce it to the staff. A lot of agencies forget to change their workflow, and that just adds work. We look at what processes can be deleted or changed; then, we bring it to the staff for use.
What About Current Systems?
The integration between Huff's current agency management system and any new technology is key. Usually integration is done between the two vendors—the AMS company and new technology providers. Without that, the agency would have to migrate data and manually do reports. That is way too time consuming. Migration and integration is one of the first questions we ask.
We use seven or eight vendors for the things we do because no one system does it all. And that's OK. We are hunting for cutting-edge solutions that help us stand out. What would differentiate Huff if everything we use comes from inside the agency management system—an agency management system that other firms also have full use of?
We definitely want open communication between our AMS and our third-party systems. Some agency management systems are not as free with giving access to vendors because of security or privacy issues, but we find most parties are willing to work together. With newly developing open-architecture systems, we may see more application program interface—you might see that referred to as API—but those new systems might not yet be as rich in product offerings as the standard agency management systems.
We haven't switched our AMS because of the amount of downtime and potential cost. Something has to be worth the pain to make that kind of change. Smaller software add-ons bring us a lot of improvement but take us offline for only an hour or two. And we have made a great deal of progress on efficiency and customer service with those add-ons.
The most important of those was the incorporation of e-signature, which streamlined workflow. Our closing success went way up after adding it. We use it for many things other than applications, too, such as confirming we got a document. It is much more efficient than certified mail, for example.
We got a ton of workload efficiency out of download and activity notes also. In fact, we lobby for those technologies with our carriers. It definitely helps expand carrier acceptance and use of technologies when agencies push for it.
Immediate Steps You Can Take
Beyond grabbing the low-hanging fruit from applications like e-signature and download, make sure your agency can be found online. A good website reaffirms your marketing authenticity. We don't hire a firm to do our search engine optimization. We do that in-house; it's easy enough to learn. We've budgeted some of our marketing funds to get that little push from Google's AdWords, and it has really paid off. We get quite a few calls—more than other agencies in our area—because of our online presence.
A good website allows us to be open for business 24/7 and gives customers the opportunity to do business the way they want to. They can use the online interfaces or simply move from the initial stage of shopping to a more personal interaction with one of our agents.
The bottom line for us at Huff Insurance is that if we are providing value—through automated processes, personal expertise and quality interaction—there is no reason the customer will want to leave. We find our tailored solution to technology adoption a great way to please clients and staff within a budget that works for our agency. We adopt what we need to enhance education for our staff and choice for our clients, and that works for our employees and our customers.
Nancy Nicklow is president of Pasadena, Md.-based Huff Insurance. Jerry Nicklow, Nancy's husband, is chief financial officer.